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Slowing Yourself Down in the Gym

Which workout do YOU think would benefit you more?

A sweaty, grueling, mentally and physically demanding workout consisting of pushing yourself to the absolute limit, testing your mental toughness, and doing hundreds of body weight exercises such as sit ups, burpees, and squat jumps.


A workout only consisting of a handful of exercises (or less) that incorporate heavy weights and significantly lower repetitions but focusing more on strength than beating your body into the ground.

Both examples may seem like decent workouts. And they both could be, depending on the clientele being trained. The first example is your standard “boot camp” type of class. Your traditional boot camp class consists of a crowded area, stuffed full of people working desk jobs that want to “get in shape” and “burn calories.” Because a large majority of these individuals were athletes back in the day, they may want to train the same way that they did when they were in sports. The problem with that is, more often than not, beating yourself up and pushing that threshold of failure every single day, seems to do more harm than good. Training has changed over time. Research has shown that completely exhausting yourself during each workout isn’t the most efficient means of improvement. Building strength definitely isn’t accomplished that way and it significantly increases chance of injury. When asked about lifting to failure, Dr. Teddy Willsey DPT, CSCS stated, “If done too much, it can even hinder progress.” Willsey also said that lifelong health and strength progressions “are made by maximizing reward and minimizing risk. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Doing countless sit ups until failure is doing you absolutely ZERO benefit and it will more than likely cause you to strain your lower back and your neck (and I’d be willing to bet that you’re using your hip flexors in that movement more than your abs, anyways). If you continue to do these incredibly physically demanding workouts every day, how will your body hold up when you’re in your 70s, 80, and 90s?

Not every boot camp format is the same but most of those classes tend to revolve around the idea of camaraderie and mental toughness. Don’t get me wrong; both of those are essential to most individual’s fitness journeys. Not many people can do it alone so it’s always enjoyable to have a team or a cheering section to work with you and push you to maximize your potential. As for mental toughness, I would personally argue that that’s just as important, if not MORE important than physicality when it comes to exercising. If you set your mind on something and truly do EVERYTHING you can in preparation for that, there’s a good chance you will succeed.

Clearly, mental toughness and camaraderie are both important. Then, the question that arises is, do people join high-intensity classes for the camaraderie and to test/improve their mental toughness, or are they joining to actually try and lose some body fat and improve their overall health? If it were the latter portion of that, personally I would stay away from the boot camps. If you’re choosing boot camps as your exercise modality for the fact that you want to sweat, burn off some steam, and exhaust yourself, feel free. If you truly want to see a significant improvement in your physical fitness, reduce your risk of injury, improve your mood and sleep, and live a longer, healthier life, there may be better options out there.

If you want to “get in shape” or lose X amount of pounds or body fat, a more individualized form of training would be appropriate for you. For the novice lifter, personalized training or small groups are much safer. This is due to the smaller client to trainer ratio, which allows the instructor to spend more time correcting form and tweaking little issues that may not seem like much at the time, but could snowball into larger problems in the future. A pentagon study looking at injury rates for boot camps from 2004 to 2010 revealed that injury rates were as high as 28%. What is the point of tossing somebody without experience with the core lifts (squat, deadlift, & press) into a large group format to simply sweat a bunch and risk injury? Sweating, throwing up, collapsing to the floor after you’re finished, and getting sore are NOT necessarily indicators of a “good workout.” If you find yourself lying on the floor after each and every workout, it may be time to rethink the programming of your training. Everything you do in the gym should have some type of purpose but just because your lungs are burning and you leave a “sweat angel” on the gym floor, doesn’t mean you actually got anything out of that workout.

Do I believe that personal training is for everybody? Absolutely not. Some people work better in larger group settings. If you are interested in participating in large group/boot camp/Crossfit style classes, be sure to fix any little aches and pains before hand because those will grow over time. Make sure your instructors know what they’re actually talking about and don’t be afraid to ask “why” you may be doing something. If they don’t have any rationale for that workout or a certain exercise, why are you paying them? Lastly, listen to your body and be sure to not overdo it. I adjust workouts with clients all of the time, based on how they are feeling, their stress levels, how much sleep they got the night before, if they’ve eaten yet that day, etc.

I understand it may not be as satisfying of a workout if you don’t feel completely exhausted or you can’t wring out your shirt, but trust the process and realize that slowing things down by decreasing the intensity of workouts can actually have an incredible return on your investment. In the end, moving is better than not moving. Any type of workout is better than nothing at all. If you’re participating in any of these types of classes and you find yourself at a plateau or in a rut, try putting a bar on your back, lifting up some heavy stuff, sprinting here and there, and see what happens. You’ll like the way your body reacts (now and later in life).

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